Album Review: Andrew Combs, All These Dreams

Andrew Combs
All These Dreams

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Andrew Combs’ All These Dreams thrives in widescreen and close-up. It’s a lush, imaginative production that’s also a series of intimate character sketches.

The 29-year-old Dallas-bred, Nashville-based Combs wrote or co-wrote every track on the album. He has a clear affection for classic country themes and characters – the lovelorn, the downtrodden and the desperate. What distinguishes his characters is their optimism or, in the absence of optimism, their eloquence and wit in the face of adversity.

This sensibility is established on the album’s first track, “Rainy Day Song,” which is also a showcase for Combs’ conversational lyrical style.

“A friend once told me,” Combs sings. “He said, ‘Boy you sound so lonely…All these leavin’, cheatin’, done me wrongs…Ever heard of a happy song?

“Offended I set down my glass, smiled and let the moment pass…Tab’s on me if you think I’m lyin’…Laughin’ ain’t a pleasure till you know ’bout crying.”

The protagonist of the album’s second song, “Nothing to Lose,” doesn’t pull punches describing his plight:

“Skin and bones in an overcoat…Silhouette all bent and broke…Counting coins for a bottle of wine…Pride got the best of me…She took the rest of me…Look close and you’ll see…A man with nothing fighting for something…God bless nothing to lose.”

With their exquisite mix of strings and pedal steel and their clear, immediately compelling melodies, both “Rainy Day” and “Nothing” are two of the most beautiful and atmospheric album openers I’ve ever heard. In particular, “Rainy Day” is a deft throwback to the polish and opulence of Countrypolitan’s heyday.

Every song on All These Dreams is atmospheric and deeply melodic in its own way. Combs and producers Skylar Wilson and Jordan Lehning – working with more than a dozen musicians and back-up singers – have crafted a sonic canvas that crackles with brilliant musicianship and creative, unexpected hooks.

In particular, I can’t imagine the album without the pedal steel arrangements by Jeremy Fetzer and Spencer Cullum Jr. – the duo known as Steelism – as well as the playing by Cullum. Their work graces nearly every song, enhancing melodies and sometimes carrying them.

But Combs’ rich, supple voice is the lifeblood of this Americana symphony. He keeps us connected to these very messy emotional struggles. And he never seems to push for effect. He’s emotive without being overdramatic, charismatic but still very much an everyman.

The album’s lead single, “Foolin’,” is a breezy piece of folk pop with an exhilarating sing-a-long chorus reminiscent of The Byrds in the “Mr. Tambourine Man”era. Combs never lets this blissful vibe overtake the song’s sad and, at times, disturbing tale of a man fed up with himself and trying to muster up a cry for help.

Combs clearly finds inspiration in the poetic, desolate melancholy often found in the work of the late, trailblazing singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

“I’m lost, I’m cold, so drunk again…Such a strange but sweet melody,” Combs sings on “Slow Road to Jesus.” “I don’t need your sun to shine…Just the warm glow of your wine on the slow road to Jesus.”

The song’s spare accompaniment builds to a brief, feverish instrumental interlude that feels like it was lifted out of the Sgt. Pepper sessions. As delectable as this stylistic indulgence is, it could have pulled “Slow Road” apart. But Combs keeps the focus on the unfolding narrative.

Combs’ writing is not immune to clichés. Yet he consistently finds ways to subvert these clichés.

The torchy piano ballad “In the Name of You,” one of Combs’ two solo compositions on the album, reads like a lot of love songs.

“I know I don’t talk much

And it seems to be when comes to love

Well it’s hard for me to speak my mind and tell the world the truth

But I’d do it all in the name of you.”

Later:

“The sun would fall

My skies would cry

My world would be so lonely

Without my one and only

Lying softly at my side.”

Look at the lyrical awkwardness in the passage, “…when it comes to love…Well it’s hard…” Also, listen to the way Combs’ voice seems to nearly give out throughout the song even as it swells with passion and yearning. He’s conveying the stormy interior of a man searching for his words. It’s evidence of a specific personality, not a routine rubber stamping of genre convention.

While Combs proves to be a skilled student of past masters and reinventing tropes, he also reveals himself to be an artist of considerable vision. It’s a vision shared by an obviously tight group of collaborators.

“Strange Bird” is a unique take on the dating game that soars and glides like its winged protagonist. The song is sunny and light yet quite the high wire ballet of pedal steel, whistling, wowing vocal runs and just the right touch of sound effects. It feels at once spontaneous and carefully constructed.

“Pearl,” Combs’ second solo composition on the album, widens the scope on the recurring theme of hope – however faint – in the midst of despair. The song assembles a mosaic of stories from society’s margins:

“That drunk on the street,” Combs sings. “Passed out in a ball at your feet…Did you know he’s got a song to sing…And he plays a mean guitar?

“Prisoner one-two-five-oh pickin’ up trash on the side of road…Yeah he’s carrying a heavy load…Took the blame so his brother can run.”

There’s also the junky baseball star, a corrupt cop with a surprising fate and a passage about a young mother that’s absolutely devastating. And there’s more. “Pearl” is almost cinematic in the way it draws these lives together, delivers its message and builds toward a revelatory climax.

Combs is at his raspiest here, a reflection of the gritty world he’s portraying. Yet, as the song unfolds, his voice cracks with varying emotions – pathos and even anger. His performance turns the song into a prayer for compassion and empathy.

“Pearl” pulls you in with a thick, tantalizing bass line and a gorgeous, mournful Steelism melody. Successive listens pull out more subtle elements – a twinkling piano, a quietly hymnal backing chorus and percussion that keeps this slow burn buoyant.

The same trajectory applies to the experience of All These Dreams as a whole. It takes multiple listens to truly appreciate the depth of craft and artistry at play. This is an album to live with, in all its grandeur and vivid details. Few releases meant as much to me in 2015. Combs’ opus never strayed too far from my ears. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

10 Comments

  1. I commented on 12/20 about CU’s top 40 singles of 2015 that my favorites included “Foolin’ from Andrew Combs (never heard of him before but he may be worth checking out further)”. I did check him out and I bought the album. Thank you Mr. Rogowin. Great review. Great album. It should have made CU’s top 20 albums. My favorite song so far on “All These Dreams” is “Rainy Day Song”.

  2. Thank you for the kind words, Bob. I too had not heard of Combs prior to hearing All These Dreams. If I had the data, I think it would reveal that this was the album I listened to most last year, second only to the Punch Brothers’ Phosphorescent Blues. Each song has taken multiple turns as the one stuck in my head. Looking at my own top albums list, I think I probably should have ranked it even higher. But 2015 truly was a superb year for country music and its diverse voices. There was an abundance of great work, much of which continues to grow in stature as 2016 takes off. What were some of your favorite albums in 2015?

  3. @Larry – I mentioned my favorite albums on the CU post for best 2015 albums, part 2. Other than Combs and a few others, our tastes in music are very different which is fine.

  4. @Bob – Just saw your favorite albums list. It’s great that our selections are so different. The CU year-end best-of articles and the accompanying comments have had the most influence on my country music education. I usually spend the first month or so of the next year exploring the great albums I missed out on or didn’t have enough time to live with. Looks like this year is no exception. I had never heard of Middleman Burr until you mentioned them. I’ve been listening to their new album and really enjoying it. Also, Cass County is really deepening for me.

  5. @Larry – glad to hear that you enjoyed Middleman Burr. After a number of solo albums, it’s their first as a duo. They are also part of the Blue Sky Riders trio with Kenny Loggins. BSR’s second album “Why Not” will be released this year. I’ve seen Gary and Georgia many times at the Bluebird Cafe in the past 6 years.

  6. Thank you for introducing me to this artist as I was not familiar with him. I have listened now to a number of Andrew Combs’ performances on YouTube and am quite impressed. Again, this proves how much great musaic hovers outside of the radio waves.

  7. @Bob, Thanks for the introduction. I look forward to exploring their work.

    @Brian, Glad I was able to provide the introduction. I was actually just introduced to his work this past summer. It’s been a long while since I heard a song on mainstream country radio and sought out an artist. Actually, there was one this past year: Late at night, in the middle of the same old loop (Luke Bryant, Thomas Rhett, Florida-Georgia Line, etc.), I heard Cam’s “Burning House” for the first time on US99 here in Chicago. Had never heard of her, but it became one of my favorite songs of 2015. I’m really enjoying her debut album. What were some of your favs of 2015?

  8. Larry:

    Early last summer, my friend and colleague introduced me to Cam on YouTube. Shorlty thereafter, I discovered that Cam was performing at an outdoor concert on Boston Common late on a Friday afternoon. She was the opener (with Aaron Watson) for Kasey Musgraves. While I would have enjoyed Kasey’s performance, I opted for Cam. I work right down the street so it was easy! I did not regret the choice. She performed most of the singles on the current album, including Burning House. Wow. It was stunning and she explained it to the audience. It was clear her future was rising. Amongst Burning House and a few other singles, she displayed a depth of talent well beyond the standard radio fare we hear. Her entire album is wonderful. (I have a particular soft spot for Cold in California and a more whimsical single, Country Aint Never Been Pretty.) 2015 had some fabulous picks from which to choose favorites. I have to go with Ashley Monroe’s The Blade as No. 1. Honestly, it approaches perfection more than almost any other single I have heard this past year. Ashley’s fragile and warm voice wrap around the emotions of her dilemma; you really feel her wrenching pain as she seeks to reason with a distressing lack of reciprocal love. (Now, that guy certainly was clueless!) I love the whole album as I do with Maddie & Tae’s freshman endeavor, Start Here. I hope they remain true to their artistic roots. Now, Lee Ann Womack totally rocked with the singles released from her album, The Way That I’m Livin, especially Chances Are and Send it on Down – and don’t forget Don’t Listen to the Wind. Like with The Blade, these songs, with her voice and emotive powers, approach perfection. I saw Lee Ann perform the album (as well as some of her catalogue favorites)in Philadelphia last year. She was awesome. (Her encore performance of Last Call melted me into the floor.) Opening for Lee Ann was Amanda Shires who surprised the audience by bringing out her husband Jason Isbell, to perform the entire hour with her. They ended with their wonderful duet, Mutineer, that they shorlty thereafter sang on the Letterman show. Jason’s new album this year warrants being on a favorites list; I am still delightedly absorbing some of the songs from it. I’m on a roll here so let me give you a breather and then forgive me if I resume on a second comment in a moment with a few extra points.

  9. Larry, Emmy Lou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s album certainly makes my short list for 2015. They’ve been performing together so long that they complement each other beautifully and seemingly effortlessly. I enjoyed the album as well as their live outdoor concert during the summer in Boston’s Copley Square. Reba’s album also is superb, and I admit I am one of those persons who loves Cass County, particularly the duets with Dolly Parton and Martina McBride, especially the latter. (The single with Miranda Lambert would have made that shortlist, yet I thought Mick Jagger’s entry into the mix did not work at all.) As for material making the radio, Eric Church’s contributions make my short list, particularly Mr. Misunderstood, as well as Carrie Underwood’s Smoke Break and Heartbreak. An outlier that I have really enjoyed is Sam Outlaw’s album, Angelenos. Not necessarily all of it, but he has some really worthy singles and, from my view, definite talent. And I am now enjoying Alan Jackson’s new album. There, it’s been a long day and I appreciate your offering me a chance here to unwind!!

  10. Brian,
    Great, great stuff. I admire your passion for the artists you discussed. I always see year-end, best-of articles and discussions as beginnings. They get me focused on certain albums that flew under my radar, often introduce me to new artists and always get me to reconsider the lists I compile near the end of December. Your thoughts on Cam and her debut album are spot-on. I really need to move the album into my regular rotation. The same goes for the Reba. I lean in the moment she starts singing on the album’s opener and I never really lean back as song after song passes. Cass County continues to grow in stature. It’s re-affirmed my appreciation for Don Henley, but I think, as a whole, it’s his best solo work. He’s always been a unique and comforting vocalist, never more so than here. I really like all the duets on the album. Even Jagger’s presence works for me – it feels consistent with the looseness of the song. I have yet to connect with the latest Rodney-Emmylou album. I think it could’ve used a couple more uptempo songs. Still, my eyes well up the moment I hear their braided voices on opening bars of the title track. And that’s happened on three or four spins of the song. I’ve never experienced that… and seeking out great duets has long been a passion of mine. There’s just nothing like these two and the dance they do on the album’s last track is a delight. Looks like you saw some great shows last year. Lee Ann Womack, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell…that sounds like a top-5-of-all-time dream lineup. What a great discussion this has been.

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